Su-24 flyby of USS Donald Cook: the trouble of keeping your word

Thursday, 14. April 2016
Charly Salonius-Pasternak
Senior Research Fellow - The Global Security research programme

Why would Russia do this? At least four different but related reasons seem apparent.

Su-24 flyby of USS Donald Cook in Baltic Sea. Picture: US Navy Su-24 flyby of USS Donald Cook in Baltic Sea. Picture: US Navy

A pair of Russian Su-24 jets "buzzed” the USS Donald Cook while it was exercising in the Baltic Sea. The flybys, not the first time the USS Donald Cook experienced this, were deemed unsafe by the captain of the ship, who felt it necessary to pause flight operations. Videos and pictures seem to corroborate that at least some of the flybys were unsafe. The question arises, in a general atmosphere of increased tensions, why would Russia do this? At least four different but related reasons seem apparent.

First, Russia wants to remind the United States – and others – that it sees itself as the dominant military power in the Baltic Sea region, and thus is ready to militarily challenge others in the region. This may include making it clear that any non-exercise operational activities undertaken by the US and Polish units was deemed unacceptable by Russia.

Second, Russia is intent of projecting unpredictability in its actions. In general, this is useful for keeping the initiative. It also serves a broader purpose of making Russian tactical nuclear weapons a potential threat in opponents' minds; for a threat of using nuclear weapons to be credible, the opponent must already have in their minds a sense that Russia is unpredictable in its actions. Another recent example of continuous unpredictability is that Russia sent Russian special operations forces to Svalbard – something vigorously protested by the Norwegian government – in violation to international agreements.

Third, flaunting international agreements, as above, or conventions as in the case of the flyby, reinforces a Russian sense that when spheres of interest are at play, abiding by such agreements is secondary to ensuring national interests are assured.

Fourth, Russia has for years made it abundantly clear that it does not accept components of ballistic missile systems (BMD) in its vicinity. One of the more clear statements along this line came nearly four years ago, when then commander of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces General Makarov gave a speech in Helsinki, where he laid out the countermeasures to expect if BMD capable systems were nonetheless deployed. General Makarov did not explicitly mention BMD capable ships - such as the USS Donald Cook – but the tenor of the speech suggested that even the temporary presence of BMD system components, such as AEGIS BMD ships, could occasion countermeasures to be deployed.

The flyby of the Su-24s can among other things be seen as a Russian attempt to occasionally publicly live up to the promise of actions/countermeasures. Yet, while certainly dangerous and unsafe, the flyby also shows the limits of what Russia realistically can and is publicly willing to do at this moment.

The final interesting detail is related to the USS Donald Cook and another Su-24, which is claimed to have used electronic warfare assets to temporarily blind/ shut down the destroyer's AEGIS system. The US Navy has ofcourse denied this course of events. Whether or not AEGIS was temporarily brought down is almost irrelevant, as the mere thought is of some concern, and we may yet see Russia claim a similar feat of electronic wizardry (not inconceivable) in this case to seed further doubt about the ballistic missile defence and general anti-aircraft defences that the US and by extension NATO can mount in the Baltic Sea.

Texts reflect the opinions of the individual authors